Corey Robin makes the case that we tend to associate virtue with powerlessness and to see power as a vice, a position which leads us to suppose that to be good we must be without power and that, as he says, “strongmen are strong.” I think he’s right, and I think this view of virtue as powerlessness follows from an association of power with self-interest that can be traced back to Plato.
As I argue in my last post, the problem of political nihilism is that it seeks power for its own sake, and justifies all power just by virtue of being power. As Thrasymachus (and Judge Jeanine Pirro) argues, everyone knows you do what you do in order to get power and it is right as long as you can get away with it. Socrates does not argue that power is bad, but that justice should have the power, rather than pure self-interest, which is divided against itself since lacking knowledge of what is good, one pursues only power. I’ve long thought that Socrates makes an argument that is itself will-to-power–the power of the philosopher, a power legitimated by the positing of the good, which the philosopher pursues. Seeking to set up the philosopher as the ruler, Socrates is subject to Thrasymachus’ complaint–he too seems to be acting and arguing for the sake of his own power, just as everyone does.
The difference between Socrates and Thrasymachus is that Socrates thinks that justice should have power, rather than any old person who can get the power. This point leads to several difficulties. The philosopher making this case in the cave that justice should rule rather than whoever achieves the rule has to appeal to those who just want power. The philosopher does not even claim to have access to that justice–or at least there’s a case to be made that Socrates denying that he knows is distinguished from his fellow citizens only in his concern to pursue justice and to pursue the rule of justice rather than power alone. He has to appeal to the desire of his fellow citizens for power in order to make the case that justice should be the ruling authority. The lack of knowledge and the lack of desire for justice in his audience requires him to appeal to their desire for power in order to get them to desire justice. Not being able to directly impute knowledge of justice, not least because Socrates does not have it, Socrates only posits the idea that there is such a thing, and that such a thing would be better for those who rule and those who are ruled. Again and again, Socrates makes this case to Glaucon and Adiemantus who get on board with a depiction of a city some would call absurd because they think they will rule in this city because they think they can have such knowledge. Socrates then uses the desire for power to motivate a desire for knowledge and for justice. Read more
This morning I read this in Brian Beutler’s latest piece at the New Republic:
“As someone who’s run for office five times, if the devil called me and said he wanted to set up a meeting to give me opposition research on my opponent,” Judge Jeanine Pirro, the maniacal Fox News host, said on Sunday. “I’d be on the first trolley to hell to get it. And any politician who tells you otherwise is a bald-faced liar.” She added that “there is no law that says a campaign cannot accept information from a foreign government.”
Pirro is referring to the meeting that Donald Trump, Jr. took with Russian nationals claiming to have information that would help his father win. One of them was a former spy. Beutler is making a case that our elections and politics require candidates to act above reproach so that not even an appearance of wrongdoing or interference can be seen in order to maintain the full faith and confidence of the American people in our election process. But Pirro makes the case that politics is just about self-interest, everyone knows it, and everyone who supposes they would act otherwise is lying to themselves.
In March, I wrote here about similar problems in the ways that people were talking about healthcare in this country–as if the various penalties and difficulties don’t matter if you don’t think you will ever be subject to them. But Pirro takes this notion even further and says, it isn’t blameworthy, it’s what anyone would do because we all know the point is to win. There is no room here for other possible motivators–say the pursuit of justice or the good. Read more
On New Year’s Day, I visited my Uncle Jon in Chicago. He is a member of JPUSA, a Christian commune in Uptown. He’s a feminist progressive Christian who is more aware of his white male privilege than any Christian man I know, so it’s refreshing to spend time with him. He was telling us about his changing views on evangelism. He described a certain perspective on efforts at conversion that he called, “dive bombing.” “Dive bombing” is when you come from above and attempt to strip your target of their (false) understanding of the world so that you can then replace it with yours. This approach, he pointed out, is very condescending. And it works by establishing that someone else is wrong. So it’s basically gaslighting evangelism. Read more
At HASTAC2015 at Michigan State in May, then-soon-to-be-new Dean of College of Arts and Letters at MSU, Chris Long, and I hatched a plan to have my students engage his book, Socratic and Platonic Political Philosophy (Cambridge 2014). Students would read the book online and engage the digital platform Cambridge set up to encourage a living relationship to the text. As a follow up and to enhance the dialogical engagement, Long agreed to videoconference into class. This week, we did it. Read more
Yesterday was our anniversary and our last full day in Nafplio. Today we are off to Athens for two days, where we hope to see Aristotle’s Lyceum, which has only recently opened, and the National Archaeological Museum. On Saturday, we took our last excursion in the Peloponnese, this time to Epidauros which has the largest and best preserved Greek theater. Read more
In my last post I was singing the praises of the local host and guide over a guidebook. Fittingly, I suppose, I spent the rest of the day working on the debate Aristotle stages in the Politics between those who support the rule of law and those who would advocate the rule of human beings. Read more
The title of this post comes from Pericles’ Funeral Oration as recounted by Thucydides in History of the Peloponnesian War. My very patient traveling companion read it aloud to me today in the Kerameikos District, the Classical-era cemetery where Pericles gave that oration after the first dead had been returned to Athens at the start of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides remembers Pericles speaking thus: They [the dead] gave their lives to her [Athens] and to all of us, and for their own selves they won praises that never grow old, the most splendid of sepulchres–not the sepulchre in which their bodies are laid, but where their glory remains eternal in men’s minds, always there on the right occasion to stir others to speech or action. Read more
Yesterday, we went up to the Acropolis. Most people know that the Parthenon is on the Acropolis. The Temple of Athena Nike, the Propylaia, and the Erechtheion, which stands on the site of the Old Temple of Athena and is a shrine to Athena and Erechtheus, are there too. Alongside a number of support buildings like the Pinakotheke, the Acropolis in the time these buildings were built mostly in the sixth and fifth centuries was a thriving place of ritual sacrifice and worship of the gods.
Today when you walk around the Acropolis, it’s well-nigh impossible to have any sense of the space as a sacred site. Throngs of people taking selfies of themselves with the ruins, or finding some fellow traveller to be a photographer for a moment. Some people are even taking video of the buildings. I found this appalling not only because the sign at the entrance strictly forbids videoing the site, but also because it seems preposterous. Are you videoing because you expect the building to get up and move? Who will you actually subject to this footage? Are you really so afraid of having an unmediated experience of something that you must position a camera between yourself and the world? These are my thoughts. But to be fair, it’s only May, so the crowds aren’t even that overwhelming. Read more
I spent the last two days attending the Faculty Workshop on Democracy and Civic Engagement at Wabash that was organized and facilitated mostly by members of the Rhetoric Department at Wabash. It’s been glorious to slow down and take some time to think about the teaching we spend so much time doing, so I’m feeling rejuvenated and enthusiastic about planning for civic engagement components in the classroom. One issue that kept recurring for me was the tension between, or at least, the question of whether there is a tension between, thinking and acting. Plato and Aristotle both distinguish between actions you do for themselves and actions you do for some end outside of themselves, and they argue that actions that you do for themselves are better than actions you do for some product or goal beyond the action. I found myself concerned that measuring the success of a course in terms of some action that might come of it beyond the thinking that takes place within it privileges action and makes thinking instrumental to action. This dispute reaches back to the ancients. In Politics VII.3, Aristotle remarks that some people think that politics is a better life than philosophy because they think that politics is action but philosophy is not. Aristotle accepts the view that a life of action is better than a life of inaction, but he rejects the idea that philosophy is not action in itself. Read more